Description: In Silicon Valley (and most companies everywhere) decisions are typically made by men. In her best-selling book, Chang outlines the shocking consequences. To build a successful tomorrow, women must be at the table.


This transcript has been lightly edited for ease of reading.

Breaking up the Boys’ Club

(Transcription by RA Fisher Ink)

Kirkpatrick: Emily Chang, so happy to have you here.

Chang: Hello, thanks for having me. It’s good to be here.

Kirkpatrick: Usually Emily interviews me but—because I get to be on her show quite often which I’m very honored by.

Chang: It’s payback time now.

Kirkpatrick: Yesterday we heard Rich Benjamin who is the author of Whiteopia, who is probably in the audience. It was a great session on politics in America. And, oddly, we also have the author of Brotopia, which you wrote and I was talking to you a lot during the whole process. The amazing thing about Emily’s book about sexism in Silicon Valley and how pervasive it is and how women have tried to deal with it, successfully or not, is that she got started on that long before the #MeToo movement happened, but it was really well timed because it came out when the #MeToo movement was already well underway.

So, what would you say at the macro-scale you’ve learned about sexism in tech, sexism in business, and is it getting better?

Chang: Yes, wow, I guess so much, but I would say that I’ve learned that it’s far more systemic than even I thought. And as you know, when I started talking about whether or not I should write this book, people like you would say, “Oh, you should talk to this person,” and, “You should talk to this person,” and “I heard this happen.” And so, there were so many stories that were kind of open secrets, but no one had reported on them. No one had connected all the dots.

And now that we’re seeing the dots connected, you just look at them and say, wow. I think Google is a perfect example where there were so many different stories of executive behavior but nobody had sort of put it all together. And then you find out that not only were they tolerating this, they were paying high-profile executives lots and lots of money to leave and to leave quietly. And when you keep these things under the rug, when you don’t take action, it only gets worse. And it allowed this culture to fester at the company and now we see the result.

Kirkpatrick: Does that mean your conclusion is that one of the reasons it’s been such a problem, in the companies where it’s been a problem—I think there’s some where it is less of a problem [and] we can talk about that in a minute—but is it essentially modeled from the top? Is that really the primary reason it happens?

Chang: Yes, I absolutely believe this comes from the top and certainly how you deal with these issues comes from the top. And there’s no denying that. If you look at certain companies like Uber and the kind of people who are empowered there, and the same kinds of issues that were swept under the rug for so long, it ended up getting out of control. We’re hearing a lot about forced arbitration in the news, so, Google and Facebook recently ended forced arbitration and now Airbnb today said that they would do it. Uber said that they would do it for riders and drivers; they’ve already done it for employees. But this basically forces employees to waive their right to sue the company.

And so, what happens is all of these things end up getting resolved in private. And then nobody knows the full extent of them and it allows the problem to continue. You know, one of Google’s responses to this, the explosive New York Times article—which I’m sure most of the people in this room have read—is that in the last two years, 48 people have been fired for sexual harassment.

Kirkpatrick: They said that was a good thing.

Chang: Yes. And no one is saying, well, how did it get to a point where 48 people were engaged in this kind of behavior? That’s the real question.

Kirkpatrick: Yes. But, you know, a quick aside on forced arbitration. We all get subjected to forced arbitration in all kinds of places, like our credit cards. We’ve almost, every one of us, probably all of us have signed an agreement to submit to forced arbitration. They don’t call it forced, but that’s what it is. If you have a dispute with a lot of—I wonder if this movement in dealing with sexual harassment could begin to raise questions about a very—I don’t know if it’s exploitive but a manipulative tool that business has accepted as a logical way of dealing with employees and customers.

Chang: I definitely think we are seeing a trend towards employee and consumer activism. So, we’re talking about Google, so I’ll go back to a Google example. I’ve had women who work at Google come on my show to talk about discrimination and harassment. They still work at the company. So, a year ago that never would have happened. They would have been too scared. And now they feel like, well, hey, I’m going to go speak out about this publicly and nobody’s going to say anything about it. And then the next day they go to work, they tweet that their badge still works and it’s all okay.

But the fact that the company is allowing that, and it’s not just with regard to sexual harassment. We’ve seen Google employees push back about their efforts in China. Push back about their work with the government. You know, you’ve seen the same thing at Microsoft, selling technology to immigration authorities. We’ve seen the same thing at Amazon.

And so, I do think that employees, as a result of this movement—which seems to have found the seeds in the #MeToo movement—we’re seeing a trend towards employee activism in a lot of other arenas.

Kirkpatrick: I will say, Google always has had a culture, more than most companies, that employees felt comfortable speaking up within. I think not as much as they have recently, but a little more than a lot of other companies. It’s a little bit of a Google thing.

Chang: Well, one of the foundations of Google, but now it’s working against them.

Kirkpatrick: Well, it is.

Chang: Or, you know, they may now have to work with what they created.

Kirkpatrick: Well, when it turns out they had to fire 48 people.

Chang: Almost everybody, at least in Mountain View, almost everybody walked out, men and women. They’re pissed.

Kirkpatrick: When they had the demonstration last week.

Chang: They’re pissed that money that they were making has been used to pay off people. And, so, I think it says something when you’ve got not just a few women activists, but the entire company, men included, saying no more.

Kirkpatrick: And one other company we should mention, everybody knows I’m a pretty serious critic of Facebook on your show and the magazine we have here. But it is interesting, this problem has not really reared its ugly head much at all at that company. So, there is an issue where when the leadership is half female, in effect, and also outspoken feminists in a way, that makes a difference. Would you agree?

Chang: Well, I think that’s notable and of course I haven’t heard these kinds of stories coming out of Facebook. I mean, certainly, in the early days there were the fratty parties. You can go find the video on YouTube of some keg party in Mark Zuckerberg’s office and keg stands and that was a long time ago. But they did bring in Sheryl Sandberg fairly early and I just—I think in general having more balanced leadership, more balanced executive teams, it’s sort of a check on this behavior.

It doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen at all, but you do see this happening in places that are more male-dominated. It does sort of prize the sort of brilliant jerk, if you will, where bad behavior is tolerated because of the work that comes along with it, which I think we’re increasingly seeing it doesn’t matter how brilliant you are, what your contributions are, this kind of behavior you just have to draw a red line.

Kirkpatrick: Maybe for the people who haven’t read your book, what’s like the worst thing you found?

Chang: [laughs] Oh, my goodness.

Kirkpatrick: I mean, there were some pretty nasty things in there. I could say some but—

Chang: Well, I’ll say one that I don’t think you’ll expect. To me, the smoking gun was just when you go back into the history of how and why the tech industry became so male-dominated. In the 1940s and 1950s, women actually played a huge role in the early computing industry and the development of software. Men dominated the hardware making, but actually when it came to software, you had women like Grace Hopper programming computers for the Navy and women programming computers for the military and for NASA, just like on the movie Hidden Figures but industrywide. And then in the 1960s and 1970s, you started to see women essentially get pushed and profiled out of an industry that they were already succeeding in because this stereotype of the antisocial, mostly white male nerd really set in and—

Kirkpatrick: Which you describe as something of a construct.

Chang: So, long story short, the tech industry was exploding and they were so desperate for new talent that they started doing these personality tests and aptitude tests to identify good programmers and they decided that good programmers, “don’t like people.” And so, the research tells us that if you are looking for people who don’t like people, you’ll hire more men than women, that’s just what the research says.

Kirkpatrick: [laughs] That’s a shame.

Chang: And there’s also no evidence to support the idea that people who don’t like people are better at this job than people who do or that men are better at this job than women. In fact, there’s a great argument to be made that we need people who care about people and have empathy for the users, whose problems they’re trying to solve, to be making these decisions about whether or not users will want this information to be public or private.

And so, women essentially were there and then they got pushed out and it became a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy and women were earning 37 percent of computer science degrees in 1984; now it’s 18 percent where it’s been flat for a decade. And this has consequences. Like, Ev Williams, who I interview in the book and he told me that he thinks—

Kirkpatrick: Founder of Twitter.

Chang: If there had been more women on the early Twitter team that online harassment and trolling wouldn’t be such a problem, he believes. Because they weren’t thinking about how could Twitter be used to send death threats or rape threats. They were thinking about all the wonderful and amazing things that could be done with it and how it could kick off these worldwide movements. And if they had women on that team, people of color on that team, women of color on that team, maybe they would have said, you know, I don’t know, do people really want to be getting direct replies from everyone in the world?

And there are very specific—Jack Dorsey has talked about this—that there are very specific product decisions they made 12 years ago where they incentivized a certain kind of behavior that they might not have made those decisions if they were making them today, now seeing the consequences.

Kirkpatrick: I’d like to give the audience a chance to ask you questions because this is such an interesting topic. So, who has a question or a comment for Emily? Okay, there we go. Please, identify yourself.

Olivia: My name is Olivia. I’m a journalist at The Telegraph newspaper. I am really interested in the economic conditions that surround this rise of activists in Silicon Valley, it seems there are a lot of social factors like the #MeToo movement, but also that people feel empowered right now to speak out because they have sort of greater economic power. I think there’s maybe something to do with the scarcity of decent employees. I just wondered whether that was something you looked at, at all, and whether that was something that has fed into this.

Chang: I think that’s a fascinating point, I mean, all of these companies are—they’re still desperate for new talent. There still are not enough people with tech degrees or with the tech pedigree that they’re looking for to fill these open jobs and I think that that is top of mind especially when you—for any of these companies, given that they are competing so, so fiercely. And it’s really interesting to see companies taking different positions on these issues. Like, Google has pulled out of this contract with the defense department. And where at Amazon, Jeff Bezos has said, “You know what, I think our country needs to be defended and we’re going to sell our technology to the government.”

Kirkpatrick: Microsoft similarly made—

Chang: Similarly.

Kirkpatrick: Which is—I mean, that’s debatable in both directions.

Chang: Yes, I mean, I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. But these companies are being forced to articulate their positions on issues and that is coming from employees.

Kirkpatrick: Yes, yes. Okay, that’s a good one.

Kocherlakota: Yes, thank you. My name is Swamy Kocherlakota; I am the CIO for a company called S&P Global. I’m a great fan of yours, Emily, thank you. I will read the book, but I have a question for you, very much similar to the question that David has asked, what’s one thing that you’d like to see the enterprise executives do that would have the highest impact?

Chang: Companies or employees?

Kocherlakota: Companies.

Kirkpatrick: You mean now? What should leaders do now? That’s a great question.

Chang: So, in general, A) I do think it needs to be articulated at the top, so leaderships of these organizations need to say they care and it’s better if they actually do care. But realize that this is a business imperative but beyond that, it’s about giving employees the tools to combat their own bias. Like, if you just focus on talking about this, raising awareness about unconscious bias, and doing the training, that’s not going to have a huge impact because we all have bias, we all make mistakes, we all don’t realize it. But if you give people the tools and you create the structures to combat that, then you can have an impact.

So, if you’re talking about hiring, it’s making sure you have a standardized interview process, you’re asking everybody the same sets of questions for the same role. You’re looking at all your job descriptions; you’re hiring a diverse recruiting team. You’re sourcing from underrepresented schools. You’re doing comprehensive pay reviews year after year after year because the pay gap creeps back whenever you stop looking at that kind of data.

It’s also realizing that employees—you know, tech isn’t doing a good job of keeping the women that it has and so women are twice as likely to quit this industry as men. So, it’s making sure you have standardized review and feedback systems; it’s not just about creating a diverse workforce but making them feel included. And so, the word retention sounds like retaining water so I like to use the word progression. But it’s making sure that women and people of color feel like they have a voice and that they can succeed over the course of a long career.

Kirkpatrick: You know, we have a session, a breakfast tomorrow morning on how companies can actually make money and do good, there’s a clichéd phrase around that. One of the people on the panel is an IBM Watson employee who is running a business that allows AI to help companies make neutral hiring decisions by making jobs—the awareness of job being available, visible to employees and applicants who normally wouldn’t think to look into certain kinds of work and it actually has a moving the needle impact in the companies that are using it.

There’s also a lot of other software tools that have been invented and we’ve written about them in our magazine and our website over the last couple of years, some more effective than others, but do you think technology can be a tool to help companies adapt to the challenges and to diminish the bias that people have?

Chang: So, I think technology has huge potential. It can challenge inequality but it can also re-enshrine and reset the inequality that already exists.

Kirkpatrick: Which is more or less what it’s doing now.

Chang: And we have to remember that AI is built by humans. And so, Amazon used a recruiting, an AI recruiting robot, and realized that it had trained itself to reject the resumes of female applicants. Because so many men were getting hired that it just learned that, or decided that, men were better. And those are the things we have to be careful of.

I mean, there are so many—we talk about the potential and future of AI all the time but on the flip side, some people say that AI is more stupid than we think, more stupid that we realize. And I think that the really interesting question to ask isn’t, will robots take our jobs, but will robots share our values? And facial recognition technology is already a little bit sexist and a little bit racist and doesn’t recognize women and people of color as accurately as it does white men.

So, we are right now at a huge inflection point where technology, AI, machine learning is exploding. There’s never been a better time to make sure that the people who are building that technology come from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Kirkpatrick: And even as we work to undermine the unintended consequences or to guard against them, to really explicitly design technology that can do more positive work.

Chang: Absolutely.

Kirkpatrick: It is a possibility.

Chang: I do think tech can have positive outcomes and I’m generally an optimist and a tech enthusiast—

Kirkpatrick: You are.

Chang: But I would feel much better about the outcomes if I knew that the people behind those outcomes had a diversity of voices. And I want my view or my experience to be represented in the room when Facebook is deciding product tweaks on a service that is used by two billion people.

Kirkpatrick: Yes. Thank you, Emily. So good to have you here.

Chang: Thanks for having me.